Animals are sentient
animals are sentient
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  I think that most all of us are born knowing that animals are sentient beings. Children know that animals have thoughts and feelings. They can see and feel that animals have feelings and intentions. Children are then desensitized in a number of ways. Animals are presented as cute comic figures and pretend is mixed with reality such that “real” and alive animals start to be de-realized. Children are told lies about the source of hot dogs and hamburgers and food in general. The truth of food production is glossed over and lied about. Many of these lies continue into our adulthood, with our pretending about the factory farm life and death of the animals we are eating. Children are also told that animals don’t have feelings, physical or emotional, and don’t mind working hard for us, performing in circuses, being left out in the cold, being in cages, and being crammed together, and generally being used, misused, and abused in a variety of ways. This never really made sense to me as a child, but it was hard to hold onto my beliefs. As adults, it takes courage to get back to what many of us knew and sensed as children.

Animals are sentient beings. To be sentient is “to be able to perceive or feel things.” That is to be conscious and aware, to do intentional actions and to have emotions in response to things.
 There is a light in the eyes of a living creature. When a sentient being dies, the light goes out and they aren’t “there” anymore. Meaning they were there before. Beyond that, one can see feelings expressed in many creatures eyes: fear and terror, curiosity, pleasure, boredom, love, anger, physical pain, and so on. There is a spark in the eyes of sentient living creatures. The first way to be open to sentience in other creatures is to see the spark of what makes them alive. Sometimes it is a sad spark, like in a rescued greyhound or caged wild creature. But the spark is there. The animal is alive, thinking, feeling, and reacting in some sort of way to the world and others. Other  animals feel physical pain exactly like humans. To think that they do not is like thinking that another human does not feel the same pain that you might feel. To say a donkey or elephant does not feel tired when working hard is like saying a different kind of human (Caucasian, Asian, African, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, etc...) does not feel tired when working hard. Animals are sensate. Animals are aware. Animals think. Animals are conscious.

Each individual animal, human or otherwise, has its own unique personality. Those of us who have pets know this and if we pay attention, we will find it true for all animals that we get to know. As we grow aware of this it can become painful to our hearts to think of the way we humans treat many animals when using them for profit or treating them as things rather than individual beings. I was recently learning about the rabbit fur industry where hundreds of rabbits are squeezed into cages  for their whole lives and then ripped apart for fur (please see for their undercover exposé of tortured rabbits lives and screaming deaths in “fur factories” in China and Russia). Each of these individual rabbits has its own personality and character. In these awful life conditions, death camps really, these rabbits lose their individual precious lives and characters and are treated like objects without any consciousness. They are suffering as any animal, human or otherwise, suffers in such conditions.
 There are millions of animals living in similar conditions to these rabbits and suffering in unimaginable ways. They suffer because they are sentient beings. It is simple to know how they suffer. Just imagine how you would feel in a similar situation. That is going to be more a less accurate as to what another animal would feel. Especially our closer relatives (mammals and birds). They are not exactly the same but let’s be clear, if you were a parrot who belongs in a jungle with your large parrot community and with your mate for (a VERY long) life you would be VERY unhappy alone in a cage. It is that simple. Putting ourselves into another animal’s experience is called empathy. It only requires us to put ourselves in the place of an animal and imagine how we would feel. Do not kid yourself (to do so is called denial and it erodes our ability to live in reality), basically animals feel in any situation pretty much how we would feel in the same situation. Maybe not with all the thoughts, but with all the feelings of boredom, loneliness, terror, fear, desperation, and physical pain and discomfort. The main difference is that animals are not the same species as us so it is easier to pretend that we do not understand their suffering.

I believe that as we appreciate the reality of each animal’s sentience we can become deeply disturbed by some of the human treatment of other animals. At the same time, however, the world is filled with much more beauty and each creature we meet is fascinating in its character and behavior. It is interesting to consider what another creature is doing. How is it perceiving the world? What are its concerns and cares? 

At this point there is finally an enormous amount of research and writings about animals as thinking, feeling, communicative creatures capable of working together and caring for each other.  There are oceans of evidence of animals with individual personality, enjoyment of games and play, engaging in complicated thought and many other sentient qualities. Here is a YouTube video of an elk calf playing in a puddle. This website does not focus on research, though I encourage you to explore it. This website focuses on how you can personally engage with the natural world and find animal engagement, in some way, all around you. Then the web site suggests how you can help animals who are being hurt and misused by people. We have to help because animals cannot talk people language and organize in people ways. Let us now return to the subject of animal sentience.
There are unlimited examples of animals expressing emotions and intention. There are examples here and I also suggest that you look around and collect your own examples. It is fun and will further open your mind and heart. A first thing you can do to “get” the feeling of animals as sentient is to make a connection with an animal. Start with any animal with whom it is easy for you to make some eye contact. Feel it making contact back with you. Drop into a place of openness and curiosity…breath and be open to this creature…Who is it? Watch it and be curious. Animals are different from us and from each other. The more we know about a species the more we can guess a little about what is going on with an individual within it. There is one thing you can get right away (if you are willing) and that is that the animal with whom you are engaged in eye contact is aware of you. It is looking back at you and taking you in. It is conscious. Once you take in this fact, let me assure you that EVERY animal is the same in its ability to be contact-full, sentient, present with thinking and feelings…the only difference is whether we can easily make the contact. For us humans, eye contact is the easiest way to engage and experience sentient connection.

Our ability to have contact with another animal depends upon our similarity and differences with the species with whom we are trying to connect, and by our ability to remain open to contact. For example, an ant is both very small and several species removed from us humans so very different from us. We cannot use eye contact with an ant and yet it is possible to have some sense that it is aware of us, as we are of it. It is also possible to have a sense of an ant as doing something with purpose and with some feeling, at least of curiosity and fear. An insect is a good example of where it becomes harder for us to be aware of sentience. Yet if we are honest, we can know that they are sentient. For example, we can see and sense that they exhibit curiosity and fear.

Another block to our own openness to sentience might be exemplified by a sheep or cow stockyard. In this example denial makes it hard to keep ourselves open for contact. We may not want to make friends with an individual sheep in that situation, or perhaps any sheep, as it will make it difficult to deny and ignore the mass suffering of sheep in factory “living.” It takes courage, clarity, compassion and humility to break through this sort of denial and accept the completely obvious fact of an individual sheep’s character and availability for many feelings and ideas as well as much capacity to suffer as you or I.  

I remember as a little girl being reassured by my grandfather that the fish he caught were not feeling pain as they desperately flopped and gasped at our feet. My grandfather was in the same extraordinary denial as most of the world and did not mean to lie, but the reality of the suffering before me still makes my heart contract as I recall the memory. Please go to for more excellent information on the subject of fish as sentient and feeling creatures. One species of fish who is particularly maligned is the shark
 A shark is a very sensitive and curious animal, but one of who, due an abundance of human fear and mythology, we are afraid. It is difficult, therefore to stay open for contact and really sense a shark’s sentient presence, wisdom, and feelings. A shark is not who we have stereotyped it to be, any more than a human being is a stereotype. The picture here is of a speckled trout who was very curious about me and I think that you can see that in her eyes. 
Of course, animals have many ways of communicating and connecting. In fact, their senses are much more finely tuned than ours. Also, many of them have more senses than we do; like dolphins, bats, or sharks. However, often the easiest way for us humans to feel connection initially is with eye contact. So use your eyes and make contact with another mammal (the most similar to us. We are in the same family). Feel the shared contact. You are connecting - seeing, feeling, perceiving each other. Our animal cousins have much more access to their senses than we do so they “think” differently than we do. Get curious! Who is that other being that feels, thinks, communicates and relates?

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